Why Haley Barbour Passed on a Presidential Run

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour didn’t have an epiphany or see a burning bush as he anguished over the past week before deciding not to run for President. “He’d love to run,” one close adviser says. “But he decided that alone is not enough of a reason. He wanted to do it, but felt that it was unfair to a lot of other people to do it just because he would enjoy it and have fun.”

Barbour, 63, has been around politics all his life—indeed, he has generations of family history in the business. So it’s not surprising, perhaps, that he made his decision in part by analyzing history.

He first asked whether President Obama can be beaten, and concluded that history is on Obama’s side.

The two elected incumbents unseated since 1970—Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush—both faced primary challenges from the ideological base of their party. For Carter in 1980, the challenger was Edward M. Kennedy. For Bush in 1992, it was Patrick J. Buchanan. Both men eked out the nomination only to have their crowns tarnished by conventions unsettled by party resentments.

They also faced strong and damaging third-party candidates in the general election. John B. Anderson took votes from Carter, while Ross Perot dug into Bush’s support.

At this point, Barbour concluded, Obama isn’t likely to be dealing with either of those forces next year.

The former Republican National Committee chairman also took a hard look at his own strengths. As a Southern conservative who got in trouble for saying that he didn’t remember tensions over civil rights in 1960s Mississippi “being that bad,” Barbour realized that he didn’t match up well against America’s first black president “on paper—although he believes that the process of a campaign reveals a true person,” his adviser says.

It’s well-known that Barbour’s wife, Marsha, wasn’t enthusiastic about the race—he had “family acquiescence, but not family support,” as one confidante put it.

History is full of candidates who run for President because they like the attention, because they want to get their ideas out, or because they feel like it’s the proper capstone to a career. Barbour evidently wasn’t looking for any of those consolations. If he was going to run, he wanted to win. So a race that Barbour had been eager to enter just didn’t add up.